Spielberg, Scorsese in Euro GATT spat

Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese have learned a lesson: It isn’t that easy to lock arms with European counterparts when it comes to complex international agreements.

An open letter from seven top European directors and producers to Scorsese and Spielberg criticizes the American helmers for statements defending the U.S. position on the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade negotiations.

The letter runs as a full-page advertisement in today’s Daily Variety and was signed by Pedro Almodovar, Bernardo Bertolucci, David Puttnam and Wim Wenders, among others.

The advertisement threatens to erase a bond forged at September’s Venice Film Fest, where Spielberg and Scorsese embraced Euro directors and came to their artistic defense.1The Europeans now say in their letter that the American filmmakers are misinformed when it comes to the artistic and commercial needs of their European counterparts.

They are responding to press releases issued on Oct. 4 by the two filmmakers about some Europeans’ efforts to exclude culture from GATT. Such an exclusion would effectively uphold quotas on the import of entertainment product to Europe.

Scorsese’s statement said: “Closing the borders would not guarantee a rise in creativity in the local countries or even a rise of interest on the part of local audiences. National voices and diversities must be encouraged and protected, but not at the expense of other filmmakers.”

The Europeans counter that demands by the Motion Picture Assn. of America for open borders will result in the “complete annihilation,” according to the letter , of the European film industry.

“We would like nothing more than to fight with you, our American colleagues, as our allies,” the letter says, going on to point out that while European films reach 1% of the American public, U.S. productions fill more than 80% of European screens.

The ad was apparently paid for by the European Film Awards, the Berlin-based organization that sponsors the annual Felix awards.

“It’s a very desperate situation for most European cinema,” said Aina Bellis of the European Film Awards. “Jack Valenti of the MPAA is pushing very hard that there be no cultural exemptions in the GATT hearings. That would mean governments could not legally provide their filmmakers with subsidies of any kind.” That notion is disputed by many Americans and Europeans alike.

According to Puttnam, many European filmmakers “believe their voices are being taken away.”

Another European filmmaker said Americans do not understand that international exhibition is not a level playing field.

He also noted that the U.S. government has its own set of restrictive measures, including laws limiting foreign ownership in television companies to 25%. He doubted that GATT would allow that area to be opened up. Most Euro countries presently have comparable laws.

MPAA president Valenti said the concerns of the letter are “not rational … No one has sat down to negotiate cultural issues, so how can you say that GATT will mean the end of subsidies? We have invited everyone to sit down and talk and find some middle ground.”

Valenti said categorically that President Clinton will not sign a bill that exempts culture. He said that while the U.S. can “tolerate cultural exemption with Canada because it’s a country of only 25 million,” the same does not apply to Europe or Latin America.

The cultural initiatives debate saw sparks fly in September at the Venice Film Festival when what began as a symposium on author’s rights segued into an anti-American tract by former French cultural minister Jack Lang.

American directors participating were shocked. “We were there as a show of support to European filmmakers,” noted participant Sydney Pollack.

Spielberg and Scorsese, who attended the festival, were not in Venice on the day of the symposium, but later Spielberg demonstrated solidarity with the Europeans by arranging the return of festival director Gillo Pontecorvo’s 1966 Venice Gold Lion for “The Battle of Algiers.” Pontecorvo had auctioned the award for a social cause.

But less than a month later, Spielberg and Scorsese issued a statement equating quotas or restrictions to censorship.

Scorsese, reportedly in London, could not be reached for comment. Spielberg’s local office said the filmmaker was completing “Schindler’s List” on the East Coast and would respond once he had studied the open letter.